Vandi Verma - Flying High and Achieving Her Dreams

As a little girl, Vandi Verma, dreamed about flying planes. Now she is a 5th year graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute…on a daring field mission to the Atacama Desert. In this interview, we will learn more about the Life in the Atacama project, Vandi’s involvement in the project, and how her curiosity and inquisitive personality got her where she is today.

Some Background

--“I’ve always been fascinated with exploration and artificial intelligence. Not that I knew what that meant as a little girl. But I wanted to fly planes. Actually, what I really wanted to do was make automatic flying planes.”

--“Then, I became interested in high power transmission because I was really interested in the mountains and how they would lay out the transmission lines. Later, I got really interested in computers, and from there, the Internet, which was completely fascinating to me…when I first came to the United States.”

Vandi completed her undergraduate studies in engineering in India. Afterwards, she received a scholarship to study in the United States, which was an exciting opportunity for her.

--“I didn’t know much about the United States. And I was too afraid of New York, and Washington D.C. was the capitol, so I went to university in Washington!” [Laughs]

Specifically, she studied at the American University and finished her Masters in Computer Science. Although, focused and hardworking, Vandi never lost sight of her initial dream…to fly planes. So between finishing her Masters, and coming to Carnegie Mellon University, she worked for Hughes Network Systems and got her pilot’s license.

At Carnegie Mellon University, although Vandi initially pursued her interests in the Artificial Intelligence and the Internet, she quickly discovered that robotics was what she really enjoyed.

--“I had a wonderful professor at the American University, Michael Gray, that got me interested in Artificial Intelligence. I was simultaneously interested in TCP/IP and I thought the Internet would the perfect medium for artificial intelligence to come about. So initially, the project I worked on was with intelligent agents. Then I took a class with Illah Nourbakhsh here; and realized that the engineer in me really wanted to do something that influenced the real world and acted in it. That was a much better combination for me, with artificial intelligence and robotics, it was just perfect. I’ve never questioned that since then, I really enjoy robotics, and Carnegie Mellon is just a great place for it!”

Life in the Atacama

Life in the Atacama is a 3-year project. The first year, the researchers and scientists will be there for 30 days, the second year, 60, and the third, 100. The project involves building a robot to perform astrobiology experiments. Astrobiology can be defined as “looking for life on other planets.”

--“The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on earth. So it provides the right environment for experiments for life on Mars. We are also looking to see if we can find the limits of life. So if we can't find life in sections of the Atacama, we could say with high certainty that beyond these environmental conditions we can't find life."

The project involves not only different universities (Universidat Catolica del Norte and Universidad Católica de Chile, University of Tennessee, University of Arizona) and organizations (NASA Ames, NASA Johnson, the SETI institute), but also researchers in different fields (biologists). Thus, this project is particularly challenging because it requires integrating all the different fields and technologies.

Here, Vandi shares her thoughts about visiting the biologists.

--“There is this whole world, of very involved science. And we have our own world of how the robots work and everybody is a specialist in a different field. And, sometimes we make assumptions about what the scientists know about the project. And it’s always interesting how we assume that the science part is just perfect and done, like it was something that could just be mounted on the robot. I’m sure they think the same thing about the robots! But going there, you realize that their instruments are very delicate and it takes a certain kind of precise understanding of it to really make it happen.”

For this project, the researchers in the Carnegie Mellon biology department are building a multi-spectral microscope, which uses a fluorescence test to look for chlorophyll-based life.

--“At a meeting, they (the scientists) would say, ‘why can't we drive the robot at night?’ since their instrument requires fluorescence, which is easier to see at night. And we would say, well, our stereo cameras won't work at night. Together we would then figure out solutions to problems like this. In this case, driving the robot to a science site at dusk and then staying there all night."

--“I think this project will have lots of interesting things come out of it.”

Vandi's Research

--“I’m interested in detecting exceptional situations. That is having the robot figure out when things are not going according to plan. Most often, there is always something that doesn’t go right because we don’t exactly know the environment; sensors fail, components fail. So if something breaks, to try and detect that something has gone wrong. For example, if you take into account that a wheel is not operating correctly, then you can try and control it.”

--“For my work, I need to get data for when things break. I spent 2 summers working along the same lines at NASA Ames. The first summer, I kind of put it (the robot) in some strange configurations and got some data. The second year, they had a demo coming up later, and weren’t very excited about me trying to get it into precarious situations. And that is definitely an issue. You can always simulate them; I can take a wheel off a robot, but that’s not the same.”

Thus, field missions are especially important to Vandi’s research.

--“Part of the reason why a field mission is really great is because the robot is going to operate continuously for a large period of time. And we will be collecting data …often things may go wrong, we want to determine what kind of things can go wrong. It's the right kind of environment for obtaining such information."

So ideally, what does Vandi want to get out of this project?

--“So ideally, at the end of three years, I hope that I’d be able to put the whole monitoring system on the robot, that would monitor how various systems are performing. And if something went wrong, it would be able to signal, either a system that could automatically recover from it, or to let the operator know that something was wrong.”

--“For planetary robots, robustness is very critical; because if you lose the robot, you lose everything. And if you can detect it in time, before a catastrophe, in other words, if you can detect when something is slightly wrong, that can be very important.”

--“There are lots of things that can go wrong. So the more theoretical aspects of my research, is how you can look at a number of faults, and try and focus in on the important faults and do it in a computationally efficient manner. There’s no point in detecting a fault, ten minutes after the incident.”

Living in the Desert

As interesting as the field mission is, it definitely requires a certain mindset and determination to live in such extreme desert conditions.

--“Strange is it sounds. In the mornings, it’s going to go up to 90 degrees. They say it’s going to be very warm. But as soon as the sun goes down in the desert, the temperature really drops. And we’re told that it gets down to freezing at night. So we’ll be taking some pretty warm sleeping bags. I get pretty cold. So I’m taking a bunch of different layers. Taking my down booties!”[Laughs]

But extreme weather conditions are not the only difficulties. What about food?

--“We will be cooking ourselves. Once we get down to Chile, we’re going to buy a stove and some barbeque equipment. So we’ll cook out in the open. We’ll probably have a little kitchen tent. Then, we’ll go down to the closest town (about 3-4hrs drive) and get fresh food. But we won’t have any refrigeration so we’ll probably have a lot of dry canned stuff.”

And water?

--“We’re thinking of a bunch of situations. One is just to have huge crates of water bottles. Or to get a big storage tank, and then go get it filled. There is a mining camp that we can go to if we have an emergency. But we’re pretty much by ourselves in the desert.
We’re going with the plan that we’re not going to shower for the whole period that we’re there. Maybe we’ll take a lot of perfume or something.”

Despite all this, Vandi doesn’t seem too worried.

“I love camping! I never sleep better than in a tent. So I’m not too concerned.”

After Graduation

Vandi plans on graduating at the end of next year. When asked what her plans are after graduation:

--“That’s an interesting question. There are so many things that I could possibly do. I don’t have a very concrete plan. Life always doles out something more interesting that I can imagine. I would definitely like to continue working on something that involves robotics and exploration".

A Few Words of Wisdom

Finally, when asked how she got this far, she shares a few words of wisdom:

--“First, I used to fret. Oh my god, I didn’t have a computer growing up as a kid. I have so much catching up to do! But then I realized, there were other things that I was doing at that time, that I was learning, that end up being useful in the end. I think that as long as what you do is something that interests you, and you do it with passion, it all ends up making your work unique in that own different way. There is not a right way or wrong way.”

--“You have to do what you really love to do.”


Learn more about the Life in the Atacama Project